Directed by Spike Jonze (2002)
by Billy Russell
Adaptation. is usually the first movie I bring up as a counter-argument whenever someone says Nicolas Cage is a shitty actor. Yes, he’s been shitty in shitty movies, but he’s also been great in great movies. He’s an actor that requires a good director and a good script, because even when he’s at his worst, he never lacks the manic energy that’s required of him.
When you have a script as good as this (care of Charlie Kaufman) and a director as good as Spike Jonze, Nicolas Cage is going to belt out one hell of a performance. That he also plays twins, a dual-role, each performance as each twin, is just…it’s fantastic stuff.
Nicolas Cage plays Charlie Kaufman, the writer of the real-life screenplay in a movie about how Adaptation. came to life.
If this all sounds a bit too hard to follow, don’t worry. It’s not. That’s one of the great things about this movie: it presents abstract ideas like real people playing themselves, while famous people play real people who they are not, who end up getting fictionalized resolutions in scenarios that actually did happen in real-life — and it does this with ease. It’s such an assured piece, juggling so many ideas of varying complexity, it’s like watching a brilliant musician play several instruments at once, all with surgical precision.
Nicolas Cage also plays Donald Kaufman, Charlie’s stupid, eager-to-please twin brother whose success with screenplays as ridiculous as “The Three,” a movie about a cop, a serial killer, and a woman kidnapped by the killer who all happen to be the same person (“Trick photography” is Donald’s reason to explain this twist logically), inspires jealousy in Charlie. Charlie may indeed be the smarter, more talented brother, but Donald is everything he wants to be — well-liked, confident, funny. Charlie is none of those things. He’s twisted up in his own neuroses, masturbating to the mere idea of someone approving of his work with warmth and appreciation.
While the movie has Charlie and Donald both representing the yin and the yang of personalities, it also delves into the nonfictional book that Charlie has been tasked with adapting into a screenplay, The Orchid Thief. The Orchid Thief technically gets two adaptations in Adaptation. You get a very faithful re-telling of a woman (Susan Orlean, played by Meryl Streep) who is following the obsession that her subject John Laroche (played by Chris Cooper) has for orchids. The movie dives head-in, explaining the beauty, the fragility, the absolutely crystal-clear reasons why John would become obsessed with them and all that he does, and all the laws he breaks to cultivate them. And then you get the Hollywood version of their story, where Susan and John are drug-addled lovers —with car chases, shoot-outs and overwrought drama aplenty.
And then, as if that weren’t enough, the film ponders the idea of adaptation itself. The film begins with a montage at the age of the dinosaurs. The dinosaurs are wiped out. Life begins again. Life learns to adapt. To simply say that it’s a metaphor for artistic process of starting over and beginning again is technically true on its surface, but it’s so much more than that. Adaptation. is a movie that’s as obsessed with humanity as John Laroche is with orchids, or Susan is with John, or Charlie is with finishing his “un-writable” screenplay. Adaptation and evolution are the processes that brought humanity into this world, and if the movie is to be obsessed with humanity and how it ticks, in all its ugly quirks and eccentricities, then it needs to start at the beginning, at the very beginning and the dawn of man.
Movies like Adaptation. are a revelation. They remind us why we go to the movies in the first place. We go for lots of reasons — to be thrilled, to laugh, to cry. Another reason we go is to learn something about its creators. Some films are deeply, deeply personal and tell us how they see the world, which is totally different from the way you and I might see things. The way Charlie Kaufman sees the world, and the way Spike Jonze renders that vision, is so painfully melancholic sometimes, but tinged with nostalgia and wonder and joy. It’s so fucking human, it’s ridiculous.
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